Book Review: PERSONAL SCIENCE by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
|Tupelo Press, 2017
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram writes under the premise that all of her writing is essentially a continuation of the same work. As she puts it in an interview with The Rumpus, her work is: “a single life project,” the books are “artifacts that mark points in time. They are discrete objects but my work itself is not discrete.” In a way, Personal Science is an explicit nod to that, a poetic formulation of the author’s method—and difficulty—of apprehending herself.
For all of its strangeness and abstraction, Bertram leaves anchors for the reader sprinkled throughout the book: clues in her titles, or moments of solidity in the form of prose, which remind us of what is at stake, or what she seeks at the end of this exploration. The book opens with an excerpt from John D. Niles’ Homo Narrans, which provides a context and a theme for the following pages:
Homo narrans: that hominid who not only has succeeded in negotiating the world of nature, finding enough food and shelter to survive, but also has learned to inhabit mental worlds that pertain to times that are not present and places that are the stuff of dreams. It is through such symbolic mental activities that people have gained the ability to create themselves as human beings and thereby transform the world of nature into shapes not known before.
Bertram is a homo narrans, a being who forges her own world through mental cosmos of words, who straddles the physically inhabitable realm and the one that cannot be touched. She leads us through these worlds, through dreams and absurdity, in this bizarre portrait of existence that is at once detached and immersive.
But Bertram is aware of the confusion of a dream-world to an outsider, and she addresses this via poems like the first, appropriately named “A little tether” before she takes us off the ground: “A self being an object, I can construct / the object I am trying to get to.”
Arranged in sections, the collection begins with “Legends like these I keep keeping.” The first few in this series are obviously grounded in Bertram’s “real” life (i.e., the physical one), but the reader is quickly plunged in and out of her dream world, such as “when we lie,” which is riddled with repetition and strange language: “with the wolves we cheeks / crimson / in bluedark bluedark we / cheeks underfoot / face up underside the princes the princes!” And just like that, the next page takes the shape of a prose poem, the recollection of a conversation with a friend, clearly back on Earth. The style speaks to the sometimes fuzzy barrier between our lived realities and our dreams, particularly in our more confused moments. As the book continues into the following sections, “Homo Narrans” and “Cerebrum corpus monstrum” the division blurs even more.
For me, Bertram’s strongest moment comes mid-read, in the form of a lengthy section of narrative entitled “Forecast,” in which the author details the obsession and anxieties of some third-person “she” surrounding plane crashes and air travel. After so much abstraction, the narrative feels extra crisp, like a photograph over-sharpened. Presumably, since the piece is otherwise set in the autobiographical “I,” the “she” is Bertram herself, but the third-person creates a sense of detachment and distance. The remaining poems after the prose section are by and large even more abstract than those before it, often featuring themes of violence.
The reading experience is almost that of solving a puzzle, similar to the fraught quest of self-understanding. Bertram employs different variations of the same symbol between the chapters, which may denote levels of abstraction in the poems—or not. She riffs on the same titles, staying true to theme while twisting related ideas under the light to give us new perspectives.
Personal Science keeps the reader guessing, on a quest to assemble the pieces Bertram has provided into a means of understanding an undoubtedly complicated portrait. It is a reckoning, a fragmentary way of examining our complex, confusing existences, and an exploration that leaves readers questioning themselves, too.